In America, we like big things — big cars, big beverages, and big stores that like to stay open on Thanksgiving so people can buy big piles of big stuff. (Fun fact: One of my top tourist stops when friends and family visit from abroad is Costco. Blows their minds every time…)
We’re so into the idea of “more is more” that we’ve built up a delightfully colorful vocabulary around expressing “an extremely large quantity of something.” Think about it — in our daily speech, we’re used to saying things like “an insane amount” or “a ridiculous quantity.” And when the amount of something really blows our minds, we’ve got hella, ginormous, crapload, shit-ton, and various other words of similar flavors.
It all started with a donkey
I started wondering how the excrement-inspired phrases came to be, seeing as a crap isn’t exactly a specific unit of measurement. What is a crapload, and why do we think that’s a lot? Well, my theory is that it all started with a donkey.
Once upon a time, an ass’s load was, well, how much a donkey could carry. The term was used in the Bible (according to this annotated Bible from 1832, an ass’s load was almost equivalent to 8 bushels) and it also appeared in one of Aesop’s fables and in arithmetic books through the 1800s. It seems the term started falling out of favor when people stopped using donkeys to carry things and as units of measurement became more exact.
Today, we think of assload as a vulgar American slang term that means “a lot.” But just for the record, next time someone says they have an assload of something, you know they mean roughly 8 bushels… Naturally, I assumed that words like buttload evolved from assload over time — but surprisingly, I was wrong.
A buttload = 491 liters
As I started digging into the word buttload, I was surprised to find that a “butt” is an actual unit of measurement. It’s an outdated term referring to a large cask used for liquids (esp. beer, wine, or water) or a specific unit of liquid measurement equivalent to 108 imperial gallons, or 491 liters. So yes, a buttload is a whole lot of liquid and it’s very specific.
From words like assload and buttload, it seems we applied our trademark American creativity and fashioned words like shitload, crapton, and all the other fabulously filthy words that end with -load or -ton to express our awe at having a whole lot of stuff.
So with that, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving filled with an assload of food, family and reflection.
So… no actual evidence that buttload ever referred to a real unit of measure, only that butt did.